How do I love thee? Well, just let me count the ways...
Sourdough has been such a great find in our house. I had basically taken us all gluten-free, owing to both kids seeming to do better that way (and I felt better too). But then I started reading about traditionally-prepared (long-proofed or long-fermented) sourdough as a solution for gluten-sensitive folks. Even for celiacs, evidently. I was so intrigued, I decided to dive in and experiment.
Sourdough is fermented grain. The fermentation process breaks down the proteins and sugars in the flour and makes it more digestible. One of the proteins it acts on is gluten, and evidently it breaks off a particular enzyme that solves the gluten sensitivity problem. There is some interesting writing on the subject: 5 Reasons to Make Sourdough Your Only Bread from the Real Food Forager blog, an article in the Guardian “The rise and rise of sourdough bread", and a Whole Living blog post “Our Daily Bread", for examples.
Sourdough ‘starter', or leavening, or levain, is an ancient baking tool, made from flour and water and any number of the millions of naturally occurring yeast organisms all around us. The starter is created by combining flour and water, and then allowing naturally occurring yeasts to grow in the mixture (fermenting!). A portion of active starter is then added to more flour and water, and this mixture is allowed to ferment (rise). Other ingredients can be added to form the dough for any number of yummy baked goods. But for the best—bread—the only other ingredient is salt. And time—let’s not forget to include that! I start planning and prepping for bread-making a couple of days in advance.
Commercial bakers yeast, a single, highly-active strain of yeast, was only developed in the 1850s. Its use has allowed the industrial production of bread in 3-4 hours, at most, from start (mixing) to finish (shelf-ready). The rapid rise of dough enabled by industrial yeast does not allow any time for fermentation to occur. With all of the ‘anti-nutrients’ (components of the grains which inhibit absorption of nutrients) intact, commercially prepared bread seems to give most people a rather heavy feeling in the gut, at the least, while also silently contributing to malabsorption of nutrients. Even the “sourdough" bread purchased at a regular store is unlikely to be fermented—they still use yeast and simply add a bit of ‘starter’ for flavor, or even just a sour FLAVORING! (Someone save us.) Check the list of ingredients to be sure; if it includes yeast, it is not sourdough.
Out of my concern for gluten sensitivity, and nutrition in general, I have focused my efforts on long-fermented sourdough baked goods. The greatest portion of my sourdough cooking has been with ‘quick-bread’ type goods, such as pancakes, waffles, crumpets and muffins, which use large quantities of straight starter. The bread I am making is fermented—partially in the fridge—for a total of 20 to 36 hours.
Before I get into my own sourdough experimentation, I want to put a plug in for our local artisinal baker, Mamadou. Not only is he a terrific person, he makes amazing bread, and almost all of it is made with his own starter, rather than commercial yeast. His sourdough and pain au levain, both long-proofed, have both been big hits at our house!
Keeping sourdough starter is a bit like having a pet. After the initial growth of a starter, which takes around 5 days, the liveliness of your starter can be maintained by using it and feeding it once or twice a week (they say, every 5 days). I have read a lot that makes it sound like a precise science, but in my experience, it has been more of an intuitive art/science blend. Once you get the hang of it, it is not that hard, and VERY rewarding! It is also a lot cheaper than buying baked goods at the store.
I have been making bread, which I find fun and satisfying, every couple of weeks. But 1-3 times a week, I am making quick-baking (and freezer-friendly) breakfast and snack items like muffins and crumpets. Because of this, I tend to feed my starter much more often than I would just to keep it going, bulking it up so that I can take up to 2 cups from it for a single recipe.
Now, if you are still reading, maybe you are thinking you would like to try baking with sourdough yourself. Great! You don’t even need to make bread to make it worthwhile, though it is fun. The fabulous waffles and such are a rich reward. You can start your own, like I did, or purchase a starter, or get some from a friend who has one going. In any case, I recommend finding a glass bowl or other glass container (glass won’t react with the acidic sourdough) with a lid or cover, which is big enough to hold at least 4 cups (1 quart), and has an opening that will allow you to add flour and water, and mix, and reach in to scrape the sides. This pyrex bowl could work, or there are these great silicone covers, which you can put over a bowl that does not have its own lid (such as the smallest one of these—I love these bowls).
For detailed instructions and actual recipes, you will need to check out my upcoming posts. But I promise to share very soon!